Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mandatory compliance issues stretch university resources - 13 Dec. 2005

This 1,500 word monster was the largest project I had undertaken, and I still consider it one of the best reporting pieces of my career. We had gotten frustrated about the university’s lagging compliance of a federal statute that required that they report crime stats, so I went to check it out. I worked on it for a month – mainly because the police chief and administrators were so tight-lipped about the issue. Eventually, about the time the article was ready to be published, they began to follow the rules better.


As an office worker with the NSU Campus Police Department, Billie Mills has more responsibilities than the typical university secretary.

For instance, Mills helps to ensure that NSU’s Department of Public Safety is in compliance with several federal and state regulations. One of those regulations, the Clery Act, mandates that a university and its public safety organ must publicly provide information about campus crime.

Among this is a crime log, which contains offences that happen on campus or are reported to the campus PD; it must be current to two days. Also, a university must keep three years of crime statistics and present them to the public by Oct. 1 of each year. The annual report contains statistics of select major crimes, some of which are broken down into subcategories.

However, for several months this year, DPS did not keep the daily log of crime reports current. Within the last month, the department has worked to bring that up to speed, and as of Dec. 8, the crime log updates met the 48-hour grace requirement. However, the annual statistics report was posted on the DPS Web site 18 days late and without the required subcategories.

The delays are due to the other functions of her job, said Mills. As a secretary, she works on the log and the reports while fulfilling other secretarial obligations. But because of her knowledge of the function of DPS and how to handle emergencies on campus, she sometimes puts the paperwork aside to handle those urgent police situations.

“Emergencies have to take precedence,” said Mills. “But we try to get (the daily log) out as soon as possible.”

Legislation for Jeanne

The Clery Act is an amendment to the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. It is named in honor of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. After Jeanne’s parents found out that dozens of violent crimes occurred on Lehigh’s campus in the three years before their daughter’s death, they helped push the original bill through Congress.

NSU reports zero instances of criminal homicide since the year 2000, with a majority of crimes centering on theft-related occurrences. Although the law allows for public inspection of crime stats, the intent of the bill is to provide information to future NSU associates.

“It’s a tool that we have to abide by and that we use,” said Clint Vernon, chief of Campus Police. “I think it’s great as far as getting the word out … to the students, faculty and staff.”

He said compliance is an issue his office deals with daily, and because of a police officer’s role in protecting the public, he must sometimes gauge precedence.

“Different things take priority, but it’s some thing that we work with every single day,” said Vernon. “We dropped the ball, sure, but were not going to do it again, and were doing a better job at (complying).”

Vernon and Tim Foutch, assistant vice president for administration, acknowledge that a larger staff of workers might improve the university’s ability to meet regulations, but Foutch questioned the use of understaffing as a justification for non-compliance.

“We can’t use an excuse that we’re underfunded or understaffed as the reason why we don’t meet the requirements,” he said. “If people come and look at our compliance with the Clery Act, their first question isn’t going to be: ‘do you have enough staff to do it?’ They’re gonna want to know if we (comply) or if we don’t, and they’re going to investigate our non-compliance, if that’s an issue.”

He repeated that the department is staffed to “what we think is adequate to their obligations.”

“It might be cumbersome,” said Foutch. “It might be inefficient ... but the fact is that we gotta get it done; we don’t have a choice on that.”

The Process

To cut down on confusion and to create a uniform reporting style, only one student worker is assigned to type the crime log, said Mills. That student works just three days a week, so when a crime occurs during the weekend or late Friday, a lapse of three days is nearly assured.

But that’s not the only thing standing in the way of timely reports; the current process includes at least two stops before reports are made public. When an officer logs an occurrence with the department, that officer, or another full-time staffer must “break things down” for the designated student worker. Then, only after vital information such as personal ID numbers and other sensitive facts are filtered can the student type a short synopsis of each occurrence that day.

That, along with personnel shakeups in the last couple of years, has exposed a need for change, or said Foutch, a realization.

“We have to establish a responsible process (in compliance),” he said. “Now we know that process and we have since caught up.”

Chief Vernon said last week that his offi ce and university computer gurus are working together on a new program to facilitate easier public reporting.

Foutch likened the new technological advancement of police reporting to the budget-clashing notion of hiring or assigning one person to deal with Clery Act issues.

“We’ve got to be clever about how to create a process, regardless of what the staff has time to do,” said Foutch. “We’ll let that technology we have today be that other person. We’re going to build a process that is not determined by human error or human availability, to the degree that we can.”

As the chief of police, Vernon takes on the large role of protecting students, faculty and staff. As an employee of a government-funded university, he must also take steps to abide by regulations and mandates set forth by entities at the federal and state levels. But he said there is a priority in his work and if more money is budgeted to the DPS, major thought must go into where that money will go.

“The most important thing to me on this campus is to provide a safe environment. That’s No. 1 to me,” said Vernon. “Sure, I’d love to have more money, sure I’d love to have a bigger budget, sure I’d like to have more staffing, but I don’t. I do the best that I can with what I got.”

In agreement, Foutch said Vernon does very good job with the resources at hand. He also said that if DPS falls too far behind in its reporting duties or needs assistance with clerical work, trained personnel can be temporarily relocated handle the problem.

“If campus police doesn’t have the staff, (my) office will provide people to do it,” said Foutch.

Compliance in good faith, and what’s next for NSU

Observance of the Clery Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education. In cases where regulations are not met, the DOE may levy fines up to $27,500 per infraction and participation in federal financial aid programs may be invalidated. Of the 13 “focused program reviews” conducted by the DOE in the last 10 years, the most extreme case of violation was that of Salem International University. The school, facing a laundry list of charges, agreed to pay $200,000 in a settlement last April.

In interviews with NSU employees during The Northeastern’s investigation, a “good faith effort” was mentioned repeatedly in regards to the then-current situation and the possibility of action by the DOE. There may have been confusion, however, to the clause in the bill stating schools are required to make a reasonable, “good-faith effort” to obtain statistics from outside police agencies to supplement their own statistics.

Foutch cleared this up, saying that non-compliance in good faith still means non-compliance. It might minimize a fine or eliminate the need for a fine altogether, he said, but he is not worried about possible repercussions of tardy crime reports.

“If somebody came in here and said ‘you guys aren’t cuttin’ it,’ we can show them all the things we are doing and convince them that we’re trying to be responsible, that were doing our best to comply,” said Foutch. “And if we recognize that were not, we’ll do everything we can to get there.”

A university spokesman also said there is no danger of NSU being fined.

So, Mills continues to conduct her daily routine: answering calls, filing paperwork and assisting her police coworkers, all the while keeping regulations in mind. Although the Clery Act is just one of several, it still holds a lofty place in the litany of rules.

“It’s not just that it’s a federal mandate, but it’s also critical that we communicate vital data like that to everyone who interfaces with our campus,” said Foutch. “We can’t even image the value that it provides.”